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Cases keep climbing as Omicron spreads in Erie County

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein demonstrated double masking, a strategy to counter the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID, during the county's weekly COVID briefing.
YouTube/Erie County NY
Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein demonstrated double masking, a strategy to counter the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID, during the county's weekly COVID briefing.

Just hours after reporting a daily positivity rate of nearly 22 percent on Sunday, Erie County officials reported an even higher number of new COVID cases were recorded Monday.

The Erie County Health Department, early Tuesday evening, released updated numbers including 2,457 new cases on Jan. 3. That number, officials note, does not count home test results.

Earlier in the afternoon, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz hosted his weekly COVID briefing. At that time, he reported the daily COVID infection rate on Sunday was at 21.8 percent, with 1,541 new cases recorded that day. That number, too, excludes home tests.

Hospital capacity within the county is also on the rise. With 86 percent of beds occupied, and ICU beds at 78 percent capacity. While not everyone admitted into hospitals are there for COVID, Poloncarz says a wide majority of COVID patients were admitted as a direct result of the virus.

“There is a small portion of it less than 10 percent, who may be going for a procedure, or a car accident and had a broken leg, they test them, they find out they’re COVID positive,” he said. “But the vast majority, over 90 percent of those in Erie County hospitals, and this is based on data that we've received back from the hospitals themselves, are in the hospital for COVID-19.”

County officials say they’re finding higher positivity rates because of the spread of the Omicron variant. They also note that testing is in higher demand. Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein stated Tuesday that the county will be widening its testing efforts.

“We know that a lot of people are are interested in getting tested. We know that Omicron has very mild symptoms and can be present like the cold. So we want to make sure that people have access to testing. So we're responding, and we are expanding our availability of testing,” Burstein said. “Starting this weekend, we are going to be offering weekend hours of testing. And then next week, we're going to be extending our hours of operation for the testing. And we're also going to be offering testing in multiple locations.”

Health experts anticipated a surge in COVID numbers coming out of the holiday season, recognizing that many families and individuals would plan to gather after having to avoid it one year prior. What is uncertain now, because of Omicron’s ability to spread, is when the peak and dropoff may occur.

“It has muddied it. They were getting some pretty good data and projections from University at Buffalo, but Omicron has totally thrown that out the window,” Poloncaz said. “We have heard from our contacts with the state, as well as federal contacts, that it could be two weeks, it could be four weeks, we really don't know. As we said, we've seen so many of our Erie County residents test positive just like any other counties have tested positive with Omicron. So it would be just a guess at this point. But yes, the projections we had beforehand were pretty accurate, but they were totally tossed off to the side with Omicron when these numbers just shot through the roof.”

Poloncarz opened the briefing with an apology for vulgar language he used during the previous week’s presentation. He admitted being upset over a question about Burstein’s overtime pay during the pandemic, based on numbers provided by now former Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw.

The county executive restated that Burstein, because she is not an elected official, is eligible for overtime. He also contends that the numbers provided by Mychajliw are inaccurate, and he argues the former comptroller singled out Burstein while neglecting to scrutinize the overtime pay collected by several members of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, including one whom Poloncarz says earned more overtime than Burstein during the pandemic.

“One person has been critical, but he doesn't talk about all the other overtime that's accrued by Erie County employees,” he said. “The top 15 employees for overtime, accrued over the last two years was $2.5 million approximately. One of them was Dr. Burstein. The other 14 members were members of the Sheriff's Office. This was a political hit job. It's as simple as that.”

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.